For more than forty years, Sabastião Salgado has been one of the premier social documentary photographers in the world. He’s worked for newspapers and magazines, photo agencies and photographers’ cooperatives, and has even been a UNiCef Goodwill Ambassador. Now, Sebastião’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, has teamed up with narrative and documentary filmmaker Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, Pina) to make a movie called The Salt of the Earth about his father’s life, work, and most importantly, his photographs.
The Salt of the Earth is kind of an oral history of Sebastião Salgado, with the man himself doing all of the telling. He’s prompted a bit by Juliano and Wenders, but Sebastião tells his own story, starting from his leaving of his successful job as an economist to become a photographer, going through his travels to places like Ethiopia and Kuwait to take photos of the people and landscapes, and finally ending with his restoration of a section of Brazilian rainforest and his creation of the Instituto Terra, a reforestation and conservation organization. It seems as if Sebastião has done it all, and he shares all of it with the audience in The Salt of the Earth.
At the center of the film is, of course, Sebastião Salgado’s photographs. The images that he has captured over the years range from haunting to uplifting, but all are stirringly beautiful. The pictures themselves are worth a thousand words, but Sebastião adds to that total by telling the stories behind the photos, remembering minute details about each one as if he just took it yesterday. He explains not only the setting and situation behind each photograph, but relays the emotional impact that it had on him – and the toll that it took on him.
And his work did take its toll on Sebastião. After years of covering famines, wars, and disasters, he was done with it. After lamenting mankind’s treatment of itself and its planet, Sebastião claimed that “everyone should see these images to see how horrible our species is,” before retiring to his little patch of Brazilian rain forest and tirelessly working on replanting it. Unfortunately, this is the part of the story where The Salt of the Earth loses some steam. The stories behind the pictures are fascinating, and Sebastião’s disembodied face ever-so-slightly superimposed over each photograph that he is discussing makes up the most interesting parts of the movie. Once he leaves his art behind, the movie just becomes all about a guy planting a forest. Luckily, there are plenty of stories and photos up to that point, but the film still leaves viewers wanting to hear more about Sebastião’s experiences.
The Salt of the Earth is a gripping tribute to a father from his son, but it’s also an fantastic expose of a photographer’s life’s work. Sebastião’s energy about photography is infectious, even after he semi-gives it up, and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders have done a great job at relaying that excitement. The Salt of the Earth will make everyone want to grab a camera…or at least, a coffee table book full of Sebasião Salgado’s photography.